The Death of Tom Burns

It was a wintery December 18, 1905, just one week before Christmas, when Tom Burns of Palmerston died. Tom was the manager of the Palace Livery Stable in Palmerston where he tended many of the Town’s horses. He was a very popular man in town and, unsurprisingly, always fond of conversation. He’d served for several years on Town Council and even served a term as Mayor. He was active in the Orange Lodge and the local curling club. In other words, he was a real community man. Barely into his 40s, Tom was also the father of six children. That particular night, Tom went home for dinner, but he returned to work in the darkness of a wintery evening.

These were the early years of electricity. It had only been about five years since Palmerston had begun operating its own electrical system and municipal electrical systems of the day were notoriously unreliable and often in poor repair.

But Tom did not rely on electricity to light his workplace in the stable; instead he used a coal oil lamp, suspended on a wire which ran the length of the stable. This was his own invention. And it meant that Tom could just push his coal oil lamp along as he went to light where he was working.

But on this particular night, when he reached up to hang his lantern on the wire, it turned out to be his last act in life. He dropped like a stone into the straw and tried weakly to rise, but fell back down, never to get up again. The overhead wire from which Tom hung his lantern each night was in no way connected to an electrical wire, but the suspicion of the coroner was that Tom had indeed been electrocuted. Somehow the wire from which Tom hung his lantern had rubbed up against an exposed electrical wire and resulted in his untimely death.

An inquest attached no blame to the Town for operating a faulty electrical system, which wouldn’t happen today: municipalities have deep pockets, everybody knows that. In any case, a friend of Tom’s, William King, was outraged that the widow wound up getting nothing from all this and he launched a lawsuit on her behalf claiming ten thousand dollars. And that was a lot of money in 1905!

The jury wound up recommending that the Burns family receive five thousand dollars – which, still, was more than the usual settlement of those days. Though I’m sure the money was a poor replacement for her husband, it did give Tom’s widow a good chance of raising her children in some comfort.

– adapted from Campbell Cork’s contribution to the Treasures of Minto Story Telling Event (May 24, 2013)